When Neil Ansell moved to a deeply rural Welsh cottage at the age of 30 he was prepared for a secluded life, but had not anticipated that he would all but disappear from his own story…
The sun drops behind the brow of the black hill that looms over the cottage from the west, and dusk begins to settle over the fields below. I throw a log on the fire, fetch through a gallon jug of water, and add another S-hook to hang the soot-blackened kettle so that it swings into the heart of the flames. When my mug of tea is ready I take it out with me and sit on the doorstep. The valley is in deep shadow now, but on the horizon the western flanks of the Brecon Beacons are still lit up by the sun’s last rays.
As soon as it is finally, officially, night, the bats burst from every corner of my loft. Some dash straight into the trees to feed, while a few remain to chase each other in dizzying circles around the cottage, at head-height. Out of habit I try to count the bats as they emerge – twenty – thirty – but it is not easy to keep track of their comings and goings for in the half-light they are almost faster than the eye. Later on in the season when the year’s young take their first flight there will be many more.
When the stars begin to appear in the night sky and the first owl calls from the woods, I go back inside and light a couple of candles. On long winter nights I would perhaps choose to read or write for a while, but in the shorter nights, with less time to fill, I spare my eyes the strain and simply sit in my wicker chair in front of the fire and watch the flames. The fire is my television. I don’t think about what I have done that day, or what needs to be done tomorrow. I don’t think about anything at all; I just watch the fire.
The cottage is high up on a steep hillside, far above the river below, and on the very edge of the green desert, the central swathe of high, rolling grass moorland that is the empty heart of Wales, occupying almost a quarter of the country and effectively uninhabited. The nearest small village, with just a single shop, is three miles down-valley; otherwise there is little more than a scattering of remote hill farms across the slopes. There is no road to the cottage, just a long dirt track, winding and rutted.
I first made this place my home when I was thirty years old, and for five years I had nowhere else. I remained there not just through the easy days of summer when I had the run of the deserted moors, but also through the long dark nights of winter when I had to huddle close to the fire for warmth, and almost never took off my overcoat. There were weeks when it would rain continuously, relentlessly, for day after day, autumn storms when I feared for my roof, and there was one winter when I was snowed in for six weeks.
I knew it would not be an easy life, for the cottage had no electricity or gas, and no running water. There were water-butts for the rainwater from the roof, and a spring-fed well down the hill. But all my life I had spent surrounded by other people, and I wanted to know what would happen when I left behind the life I knew and fell back on my own resources. I wanted to strip away all the things that I took for granted and see what I truly needed. I would forage for wild food, grow my own vegetables, cook over a log fire. I deliberately opted out of any number of conveniences that might have tied me to the world; I had no vehicle, no phone.
I was broken in to solitude gently. In the first spring I received regular visitors, friends wanting to see what I was up to. It was like a camping holiday for them; my cottage a stone tent. But as time went by and the weather began to turn, the visits became gradually more sporadic, and any occasional guest began to feel like an anomaly, a pleasant interruption to my real life, a life spent alone. Soon, weeks would go by when I saw no-one at all, even in the distance. The only person I ever saw from my window in five years was the farmer heading up into the hills to gather his flock.
Still, there was plenty to keep me busy. I had to maintain the house, cut and chop logs to keep my woodshed filled, haul water from the well, learn how to grow my own food and gather wild food in season to preserve for the long, hard winters. Occasionally I would pick up a few hours of forestry work to keep me in essentials, but I didn’t need much; I had no bills and my rent was nominal. This basic maintenance occupied me for at least a couple of hours of each day. And then I would walk, whatever the weather. The weather was so unpredictable that I determined that I could not let it rule my life; I would do what I wanted regardless. As a child I had been an enthusiastic birdwatcher, and that enthusiasm returned to me now fully fledged. These hills were rich in wildlife, and I fell in love with the land and all that it contained.
There is an assumption that the solitary life must be a life of introspection, or an expression of spirituality. The tradition of the religious hermit is to take yourself away from the world of men in order to get closer to your God. And now, in more secular times, the concept of retreat is still goal-driven; to remove yourself from distraction for a fixed time in order to ‘get to know yourself better.’ But I had no goals, and no time limit either. This was simply the life I had chosen for myself, and I would continue to live this way for as long as it felt like the right thing to do. I had no expectation of returning from my cottage refreshed and with greater understanding of self; I felt no self-imposed pressure to gather life-lessons for my future. Rather I just lived each day as it came.
And so, my five years in the hills became a time not of introspection but of constantly looking outwards at the natural world around me. I became acutely aware of the turn of the seasons, while often having no idea what day of the week it was. I had no mirrors in the house save for a little shaving mirror; rather, my first thought on waking would be to look out of the window to see what was there – a buzzard or red kite circling above, a redstart or pied wagtail on the dry stone wall where they nested. This process of self-effacement was a gradual one. Intermittently, I would keep a journal throughout my stay. For the first year it resembles a conventional diary – an account of where I went and what I did – but after that it soon became almost solely a nature journal, isolated and disconnected fragments of my daily observations. I disappeared from my own story.
Solitude can be a joy, a liberation, if it is freely chosen, while unwilled loneliness can feel like a prison. I did gain an inner peace from my time in the hills, a peace that I have carried with me ever since. While there I spent most of my time in an almost meditative state, but my meditation that was focused outwards, not inwards. In my life now, I can only find time to visit the cottage a few times a year, but I still find that I very quickly re-enter that same state of forgetfulness, and it is as though I had never left.
When I decided all these years later to try to write a memoir of my time in the mountains, I faced the challenge of trying to put myself back into the picture. I can recall the birds in perfect clarity – the dash of the hawks through the trees, the ravens that tumbled over the crags, the echoing wails of the golden plovers out on the moor – and the animals too – the badgers emerging hesitantly at dusk, the fleeting glimpse of an otter on the river. But in my memories I am hardly there. I am almost invisible to myself. I am an eye.